Buddhist Insight Opened New Way of Being

by Robert A.F. Thurman, Newsweek, Jan 8, 2007

This week's question was a good one for the New Year. It made me reflect on the past 65 years in a deeper way than usual, trying to think of what was "religious" about some of my formative experiences. I come back to the time when I was 21, in the early spring of '63, when I first encountered the teachings of Nagarjuna.

<< Nagarjuna

He is the great Indian Buddhist philosopher and saint of the early common era centuries.

My first teacher was a 61-year-old Mongolian Lama named Geshe Wangyal, who was teaching me the Tibetan language at the same time as the basic Buddhist principles as expressed in Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend. Everything in that text leapt into my mind as if in letters of molten gold, but what really moved me was the Buddhist principle of the "beginninglessness" of life and the universe.

This teaching implies that we as individuals have had an infinite number of previous lives, evolving and devolving through embodiments as all kinds of living beings. This in turn implies that we face an endless future. I was quite puzzled by this idea at first, until I realized that it only seemed strange because I was accustomed by Western religion and science, each in its own way, to the idea of a "first beginning" (Aristotle's uncaused cause), whether big bang sort of materialistic thing, or Genesis sort of spiritualistsic thing.

Gradually I gained the insight that a reference frame of beginninglessness and endlessness shifts the type of pressure one feels to find a purpose in life. The materialist feels a logical pressure to resign her or himself to meaninglessness and purposelessness, and the Western monotheist feels a kind of pressure to abandon logic and find faith in God, in whose beginninglessness and endlessness she or he then feels the grace of meaningfulness.

The Buddhist beginninglessness and endlessness embeds a commonsense, logical imperative to participate in evolution, which does not contain meaning or purpose in itself. Howefver, at the same time it presses one to make God's or Buddha's purpose one's own; that is, to work toward the perfect happiness of self and all other beings, with an infinite plenty of time to get the job done!

Somehow this all clicked together for me at one point in those early studies, and was, I think, religiously "formative" in a very concrete sense. My life since then has unfolded within an underlying reference frame of what I would call "infinite consequentiality," in that whatever one does, even the slightest good or bad thing, has endless consequence.

This framework, as I understand it, gives one a commonsensical imperative to be mindful that one's acts, words, and thoughts be always a bit better than a bit worse, without requiring one to adopt any sort of nonrational belief.